Long Way To Go Home: When the Zen Master Wasn’t Zen

In June of 1993, the Chicago Bulls stood as back-to-back NBA champions looking to complete the first threepeat since the 1960s Boston Celtics. After finals series wins over the Los Angeles Lakers in 1991 and Portland Trailblazers in 1992, the Bulls faced Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns in the 1993 NBA finals.

Phoenix, winner of sixty-two games during the regular season, held home-court advantage over the fifty-seven-win Bulls in a two-three-two finals series format. The Bulls won the first two games on the road, and the teams then split the first two games in Chicago. Holding a 3-1 series lead following their home win in game four on June 16, the Bulls had one opportunity to close out the series at home– game five on June 18– before the series would return to Phoenix for possible games six and seven.

Bulls forward Horace Grant was worried about the possibility of a summer return to Arizona, and Phil Jackson, Chicago’s cerebral coach dubbed the “Zen Master,” was especially interested in wrapping things up at home in game five, including for personal reasons: he had a concert to attend.

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Families that play together (periodically) win together: NBA champions edition

Following the San Antonio Spurs’ dominant win over the Miami Heat in the NBA finals, FiveThirtyEight decided to examine whether the popular narrative about the winners and losers– that the Spurs played a more complete, team-oriented style of basketball the Heat, increasingly reliant on their solitary superstar, could not combat– was borne out in the numbers. They did this by comparing the relative usage rates (USG%) of the teams’ lineups. Plotting the difference in USG% between each team’s “top” player, the one who “used” the most possessions to either shoot, be fouled, or commit a turnover, and each successive player, should show how well the team spread the ball around. A team that did a good job of sharing the ball should plot a flatter line than a team that did not. FiveThirtyEight’s chart supported the popular narrative: San Antonio’s line was flatter than Miami’s, and the league average, while Miami’s line topped both.

As FiveThirtyEight pointed out, this isn’t how NBA championships are supposed to be won. As much as the Heat’s assemblage of its “big three” was seen as groundbreaking, it fit the narrative that grew out of Michael Jordan’s Bulls and Kobe Bryant’s Lakers (and certainly existed before Phil Jackson coached both of those teams to multiple championships) that the NBA was a star-driven league, and the way to win championships was to have a superstar. The Heat simply presented as an extreme version of that reality, with little in the way of supporting cast members.

FiveThirtyEight only compared this year’s teams, but the article made me wonder how the last NBA champions who deviated from the star-heavy model– the Detroit Pistons team that won it all exactly ten years ago amidst a solid run– compared statistically to this year’s Spurs.

I tallied the numbers using Basketball-Reference‘s team playoff data, sorted by USG%. Before doing so, though, I made an executive decision to omit data from players who appeared in fewer than ten playoff games that year, which swept out Austin Daye (one game for the 2014 Spurs) and Darko Milicic (eight games for the 2004 Pistons). The resulting plot lines for each team are essentially equally flat:

nbachampusagechartFor perspective, keep in mind where the Spurs’ line– red on my chart, black on the one above– is situated relative to the rest of the (2014) league. It seems these Spurs and those Pistons were on the same page when it came to playing team-oriented basketball. Meanwhile, Miami is discussing adding Carmelo Anthony for next season. Anthony has been in the top ten in the league for USG% in nine of the past ten years.


Coaching changes are happening everywhere these days, and by everywhere we mean in Detroit and San Francisco or Oakland or wherever the heck Golden State is. And since they are happening, ALDLAND is going to talk about them. But we haven’t forgot college hoops, as we touch on the biggest story of 2014, coming out of New Haven, CT. Come for the basketball, stay for the soccer, which is also here in this podcast too.


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Philip Jackson’s legacy

Now that we have a few generations of organized sport under our collective belt, we have more options for assessing the greatness of its participants contextually. While many of the major sports, especially hockey and baseball, have become internationalized through broad player entry, coaching pools remain markedly small. Moreover, many of the coaches are (professionally, and occasionally familially) related to each other. Trace a current head coach’s resume backwards and you’re likely to find that he worked as a coordinator or assistant alongside other current head coaches underneath a prominent head coach of the past generation. Looking prospectively, these relationships often are described as “coaching trees” (click here for a detailed look at some of the NFL’s coaching trees), and, beyond any championships won, seasonal records set, or individual players developed, these coaching trees can represent a coach’s most lasting impact on the game. Some of the most extensive coaching trees read like the first chapter of Matthew (the begattitudes), and these relationships are important not just because a handful of people used to work together and now are running their own teams, but because they represent shared philosophies of coaching– strategy, tactics, personnel management, etc. Sort of like long-gone U.S. presidents can continue to affect public policy through their lasting legacy of federal judicial appointments, athletic strategists can find their schemes in play long after they’re gone, directed by their coaching legacies and operated by modern stars they may never have met. Having a large, relevant coaching tree is a major indicator of coaching success.

Which is why it’s surprising to realize that professional basketball’s greatest coach, Phil Jackson, essentially has no coaching tree whatsoever.

Last month, Grantland’s Chuck Klosterman wrote a piece on Jackson and the Triangle offense that offered little insight on Jackson or the Triangle. It did conclude with the following, however, and while the last sentence frames this partial paragraph as a preemptive obituary for the Triangle, the substance of the quoted portion functions to conscribe the legacy of Jackson himself:

Jackson is widely viewed as arrogant. He engenders jealousy among his rivals (and seems to enjoy doing so). His acolytes are few and far between. Unlike most coaches who’ve had major success, he hasn’t spawned a significant coaching tree of former assistants — his only real tentacles into the league have been recently fired Timberwolves coach Kurt Rambis and ex-Mavs coach Jim Cleamons (currently working in China). Neither ran the Triangle in totality. Jackson’s NBA impact has been massive, but his ongoing influence will be muted. It appears that he will not be remembered as the NBA coach who ran the Triangle best; in all likelihood, he will be remembered as the only NBA coach who ran it at all. If the Triangle truly dies, it dies with him.

The man and the scheme are inextricably connected, of course, and we’re far too close to Jackson to estimate or predict his total legacy and future perception, but at a time when the many of the best coaches are seen either as the grand culmination of an existent coaching tree or, especially, the roots of a new one, Jackson appears rather isolated, which is sort of how we’ve always thought about him anyway.